Strategic Planning – A Cautionary Tale

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This story is about one of the reasons why I am better at what I do today – I was burned, and I learned.

I was responsible for business planning that year. I made several attempts at scheduling workshops for the executive team, occasionally they had actually been convened, but the CEO had immediately hijacked the meeting to discuss operational issues. That was the culture, the CEO was from an operational background, he liked to manage by crisis, he was good at it, and he was not really interested in strategy.

So eventually the Board of Directors wanted to know what the strategic plan was.

By this point I had developed some ideas of my own because but no one else was interested, because the CEO was not. I had a product/market matrix I had developed, it was the basis for deciding what the company should, and should not, be in, and there were some glaringly obvious changes needing to be agreed. I had developed a corporate strategy. I thought I had the answers.

So over several weeks, leading up to a workshop at which a couple of board members were to attend, I gradually extended a PowerPoint presentation into a strategic plan of about 15 pages, and I distributed it to the workshop attendees a few days in advance for them to look through.

When we reached the strategic plan on the agenda I made a few comments about what I had done and referred everyone to the presentation to take them through it. Immediately one of the Board members condemned the document as too long, ‘a business strategy should be no more than two pages’

Of course he had a point, but I was so dumbfounded by the attack that I failed to point out that the strategy was on two pages, pages 6 and 7 to be exact, and the rest was background and high levels plans, after all the document was called ‘Strategic Plan’, not just ‘Business Strategy’. But he had not gone past page 1.

Everyone else gawped, I retreated in embarrassment.

Afterwards the other board member said ‘Sorry, Mate’ and the CEO said something similar, but I heard over the next few days my reputation had been tarnished.

That was the day I probably really learned what it really was to be a consultant. I had not consulted and I had made the presentation too complicated for busy people. I have seen other highly regarded consultants make the same mistake (one at a strategy meeting, just like me) – ‘the client is not listening so I will be clever and provide all the answers, in detail’. You only do that if you are explicitly asked. You may have all the answers, but that means nothing if you do not have buy-in. Draw a line, tell the client if he wants a result he must be involved, if not you cannot deliver.

I have never made that mistake again.

And by the way, if you’re a business leader, do not hold someone else accountable for what you do not like doing, and then let them fail because you do not support them.

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